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I was recently teaching my eighth grade science class a lesson on volcanoes, and we got to talking about Mount Vesuvius when one of my students shot her hand up in the air and said, “Mr. Pope, I used to live near there. I went all the time.”

I smiled. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence among my class of adolescent world travelers. I teach at Zama American Middle-High School, a Department of Defense school in Kanagawa, Japan.

Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) dependent schools are run by the U.S. military for children of members of the armed forces. The schools were recently in the news for their relatively strong performance on what’s known as the Nation’s Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Although most states and jurisdictions lost ground since 2019 in fourth and eighth grade math and reading on the NAEP, DoDEA schools did relatively well. They held steady, posting no declines, and even saw an increase in eighth grade reading — the only state/jurisdiction to make gains in that subject and grade.

I know what you’re thinking: DoDEA schools tend to do well on the NAEP; some people say it’s because we have a unified curriculum, strong community support, resilient students and teachers, rigorous standards, aligned assessments, investments in professional learning and teacher leaders and a social safety net that includes health care and subsidized housing. 

But it’s not helpful to simply set aside DoDEA schools when looking at the Nation’s Report Card scores. Our kids participate in the testing, so we should look at their positive results and see how we can apply lessons learned to U.S. schools more broadly.

Related: Schools on U.S. military installations raising standards, tracking students beyond high school

Let’s get back to my Mount Vesuvius lesson. I know that most children in America, whether they live in an apartment in New York City or on a farm in Nebraska, won’t get a chance to see an active volcano in Southern Italy. 

But it’s the job of educators, leaders and policymakers to bring knowledge of the world to kids. We can do this by taking field trips to local museums and historical sites, inviting experts into our classrooms, participating in programs like Empatico that connect students worldwide, creating robust class libraries and using content-rich curriculums across subject areas to build student knowledge. 

It’s the job of educators, leaders and policymakers to bring knowledge of the world to kids.

Also, it’s not enough to just teach kids how to read in a skills-based way. Exposure to rich experiences and education about the world around them plays an important role in helping students understand more complex reading material. At our school we consciously tie those elements together, because being a strong reader is critical to being a strong learner. Every student deserves a knowledge-rich approach to learning regardless of whether they visit Mount Vesuvius and places like it in person or through other learning experiences.

Strong partnerships with parents, community stakeholders and military commands are a critical component of DoDEA’s success. That model of connecting families and local leaders to school communities can be a force for all schools. 

In virtually every city or town there are parent leaders, business leaders and representatives of community organizations more than willing to figure out what resources and programs their local kids need. School district leaders can connect them to make that happen.

Every child also needs to know that there are caring adults inside their school who have their best interests at heart and who can and will support their parents and guardians in helping them reach their full potential. 

DoDEA schools have skilled counselors to meet the needs of our population. It’s troubling to hear about serious counselor shortages in U.S. public schools, especially given the challenges students have faced during the pandemic. 

Related: Schools on U.S. military installations are adopting Common Core — but don’t call it that 

We have to look for solutions, and there are lessons to draw on from DoDEA priorities and approaches. It’s not easy to be the child of a deployed service member, constantly moving to and living in foreign countries with no direct connection to extended family and familiar surroundings. So in my school, kids and adults come together in advisory periods to focus on the students’ needs.

And finally, if we expect educators to improve student outcomes and rise above the steep declines we saw in NAEP reading and, especially, math, we need to equip them with more resources and skills. DoDEA educators went through a combined total of 2 million hours of professional learning and 800,000 hours of focused collaboration during the implementation of the system’s College and Career Ready Standards that began with PK-5 mathematics in the 2015-16 school year and were completed with PK-5 social studies in 2021-22.

DoDEA schools weren’t the only successful schools largely overlooked amid the release of the Nation’s Report Card. Catholic Schools performed relatively well too. And Los Angeles Unified was the only participating large urban district that, like DoDEA, posted gains on the eighth grade reading assessment. Its superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, my fellow member on the National Assessment Governing Board—which sets policies around NAEP — has cited professional development, tutoring and summer learning as some of the interventions that led to success there. Such pockets of resilience can give us information that can benefit teaching and learning elsewhere. 

It’s important to look for educational bright spots. Being cynical in the face of progress won’t help students succeed at the level we know they’re capable of. Listening and learning from each other is a much better approach.

Michael A. Pope is an eighth grade science teacher at Zama American Middle-High School in Japan. He also serves as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board.

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